INDIANAPOLIS — Connie Lamm wore her Indianapolis Colts snowman earrings to work Tuesday morning because it's wintertime and those are her winter earrings. Before she started her waitress shift at Cafe Zuppa about a mile north of Lucas Oil Stadium — her Mecca — she proudly showed them off: a foggy, glass snowman sitting atop a brown football with the Colts' blue horseshoe logo emblazoned on the ball.
Her face brightened when the conversation turned to Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. "I love the guy," she said, "and I'm serious." But these are anxious times for die-hard fans such as Lamm, who has lived here for 57 of her 70 years.
Manning's illustrious tenure with the Colts appears to be nearing its conclusion after 14 seasons, four NFL MVP awards and one Super Bowl championship. He still is recovering from multiple neck surgeries, including a cervical fusion procedure, he underwent last year, and the Colts owe him a $28 million bonus if they are to continue employing him past March 8.
As that deadline approaches and as Colts owner Jim Irsay continues to overhaul his franchise, Indianapolis is taking stock of what Manning has meant to the city and its citizens, fully aware the inevitable might be upon them a few years earlier than they had hoped.
"He has become one of the icons of our city," said Scott Miller, president of the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. "He's one of the major things that, not just nationally but internationally, our city is known for. He has been a huge benefit to us."
Larger than life
Take Interstate 70 from the airport east about 11 miles, past the industrial yards and the church displaying in its front window a purple neon light that reads "JESUS." At the base of downtown, next to the Citizens Thermal steam plant — which puts a Midwestern stamp on this city of 830,000 people by puffing steam clouds from stacks on the roof — sits Lucas Oil Stadium.
How fitting that a 50-foot-tall banner of Manning hangs on the outside of the stadium's North wall above the American, state and Indianapolitan flags. Manning is pictured signaling to his teammates, but because of the banner's placement, he's also overlooking a skyline that city officials will tell you he helped build.
"His arrival was so well-timed in ways that no one could have foreseen," said Tom Harton, editor of the Indianapolis Business Journal.
The Colts drafted Manning, who turns 36 next month, first overall in 1998. After a 3-13 rookie campaign, Manning helped engineer a turnaround that shifted the NFL landscape and Indianapolis itself. In 1999, the Colts went 13-3, starting a 12-year span during which they won at least 10 games in each of 11 seasons.
That challenged the Hoosier State's longstanding affinity for basketball. Legendary hoops coach Bob Knight was dismissed from Indiana University in 2000, the same year the Indiana Pacers peaked by reaching the NBA Finals. It enabled Manning and a talented supporting cast to push the Colts to the front of Indianapolis' consciousness during the 2000s.
At the time, the city was pushing forward with developmental and marketing strategies centered on amateur sports and its burgeoning convention business. Manning and the Colts garnered national attention, and the city took advantage.
"When you're marketing a city and you have that spotlight repeatedly shown on your city through a winning football team and someone like Peyton Manning, it helps grow an overall brand perception of Indianapolis as a winning city," said Chris Gahl, spokesman for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association. "We've enjoyed more than a decade-long run very deliberately marrying the Indianapolis brand to a winning football team, and certainly Peyton Manning, whose clean, crisp image is exemplary of the type of city Indianapolis is."
The Colts' headliner status helped garner in the mid-2000s sufficient public support for a $1 billion proposal to build Lucas Oil Stadium ($725 million) and expand the Indiana Convention Center ($275 million). The stadium opened in 2008, and the convention center expansion was completed last year.
Those facilities, which are linked to 12 hotels via a climate-controlled skywalk, are now the centerpieces for Indianapolis' marketing strategies. Since Manning arrived in 1998, the number of hotel rooms in the city has increased by more than 14,000. The ICVA claims Indianapolis benefits from a $3.4 billion annual economic impact from tourism.
Manning also has a significant charitable presence in the community. St. Vincent Children's Hospital in 2007 was renamed Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent. His PeyBack Foundation has donated more than $4 million to youth organizations in Indiana, Tennessee and Louisiana.
"His emergence on this football team and what he has meant coincides with the emergence of this town," said John Michael Vincent, a host on ESPN1070 The Fan radio in Indianapolis. "You can give Manning a great deal of credit along with this city, as they took full advantage of the era here. They brought him in just as this city and some of the long-term ideas and focus with downtown started to evolve into the now. It was a perfect fit."
At a high-top table inside the cafe Tuesday, Lamm fretted over Manning's future with the Colts. One way or another, he won't play here forever, she acknowledged. He might even finish his career with another team, perhaps the Washington Redskins.
"It's going to be awful," she said, contemplating the end. She repeated the words, as if to convince herself of reality.
Manning's departure would leave the Colts in need of a quarterback. In going 2-14 without him in 2011, they earned the first-overall pick in the 2012 draft. Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck is an extremely enticing prospect, but it will take more than talent to follow Manning's legacy.
"Maybe I'll be proven wrong once the Andrew Luck era begins and Manning is waiting to play someplace else, but my firm belief is we're going find out heavily that this town is certainly a Colts town but at the same time is a huge Manning town," Vincent said. "Keep in mind that this franchise, it was rumored every six or so months [in the mid-1990s] that it would be relocating to Southern California. He re-energized this city and its love for the NFL and Colts football."
The ways in which Manning and the Colts furthered the city's development won't be undone if he is released, but continuing to brand the city as a winner is necessary to build on the foundation in place.
"I don't think we'd all lose our will to live," Harton, the IBJ editor, cracked.
"It's more about are the Colts going to figure out how to rebuild in a way that they don't just sink into obscurity. I think ultimately it's more important how they do than whether any one player is here."
Such is the cold reality of the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately NFL. In the meantime, Indianapolis can reflect and celebrate a beneficial partnership not every city enjoys.
"If Peyton Manning departs Indianapolis, we simply say thank you," said Gahl, the ICVA spokesman. "Thank you for bringing a winning football team that brought in droves of media to shine an international spotlight on Indianapolis, and thank you for not only for being a leader on the field but off the field where children's hospitals were built, where time was given to welcome special visitors and groups in conventions, and thank you for helping growing Indianapolis' image as a vibrant city."
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